Eating and Being   /   Fall 2019   /    Signifiers


Like a lover of endangered species, the lover of endangered words jumps for joy when he sees a word being rescued.

Wilfred M. McClay

Universal Composition, 1937, Joaquín Torres-García (1874–1949); photograph: Philippe Migeat; Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, France; © CNAC/MNAM/Dist. RMN-Grand Palais/Art Resource, NY; © copyright Alejandra, Aurelio, and Claudio Torres 2017.

A recent book called Mere Civility, by the Oxford political theorist Teresa Bejan, has made a useful contribution to our struggling intellectual life, not least by imparting some clarity to the abused noun in her title. Bejan’s understanding of civility is not the politeness sought by today’s self-appointed arbiters of public manners and speech, by chin-stroking pundits, washed-up Midwestern congressmen, associate deans for student life, and other paladins of political correctness, let alone by the various busybodies who are constantly parsing our speech in search of things to be offended by. In fact, as Bejan acutely points out, the term civility is often used as a genteel-sounding pretext for the suppression of disfavored views.

By contrast, her ideal form of civility would not seek the attainment of a world in which no one’s feelings ever got hurt. What she has in mind is something far more robust, rough-and-tumble, and occasionally even rhino-hided—a world in which the understanding of tolerance would not require empathy so much as a kind of deep and principled respect for what Bejan’s hero Roger Williams called “soul liberty,” paired with an intense commitment to the dignity of speech as the chief avenue by which we ascertain and share the truth about things. There was a time, not all that long ago, when this freewheeling exchange of ideas was the central element of something called “liberalism.”

But my interest was drawn not only to the noun in the title of Bejan’s book but also to the adjective: mere. Her use of that word delighted me. Like a lover of endangered species, the lover of endangered words jumps for joy when he sees a word being rescued, and is grateful when a writer restores to currency a semantic possibility that had fallen into desuetude. It is as if a lovely antique table has been rediscovered after many years of gathering dust up in the attic, and when brought downstairs and cleaned up and polished, imparts a splendor and unbought grace to the room that no shiny new object could possibly match.

All this may sound like a ridiculous fuss over such a puny and innocuous word. After all, the adjective mere is today generally used as nothing more than a dismissive or minimizing modifier (a “mere” dismissive modifier, as it were). A mere child, a mere pittance, a mere show put on by mere mortals. By the time Ethel Merman belted out Cole Porter’s declaration that “mere alcohol doesn’t thrill me at all,” in Anything Goes (1934), it must have seemed that the linguistic die was cast, at least for America. We no longer seem to get a champagne kick out of mere.

But Bejan’s unexpectedly kicky title reminds us that the word also once had, and may yet be brought to regain, a much more vigorous sense. Mere in that earlier usage referred to something pure, something without admixture, something foundational. These meanings come from the original Latin rendering of the word, merus, which carried overtones of genuineness and authenticity. There is also more than a hint here of the way in which C.S. Lewis spoke in his wartime BBC radio lectures of “mere Christianity,” the common element that links all of the diverse confessions and sects and institutions that call themselves Christian, and sets aside the adiaphora and incidentals that otherwise separate them. Mere in that sense is not a near-beer thing or a lowest common denominator; it is instead the concentrated essence of the matter, the base upon which every subsequently erected superstructure must rest. Or fall.

Once one begins to see mere in this light, familiar texts from the past begin to speak to us in accents that many of us may never have heard before. For example, when the poet William Butler Yeats wrote ominously of an approaching Second Coming in which the promise of redemption will be replaced by an onslaught of barbarity, and “Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,” it would appear that he was saying something quite different from predicting the arrival of a sort of disheveled, second-string form of “mere” chaos, or even a full-scale Hollywood-style anarchy, got up in terrifying metallic-red warpaint and announced by deafening explosions and bursts of atonal movie music. The poet’s “mere” in this instance denotes something different from either, something far more active and chilling, something closer to the concentrated essence of anarchy, a horror unmitigated by any familiar point of reference.

This more robust use of mere, as expressing what is essential about a thing rather than what is accidental or dispensable, is reminiscent of the way the word able is used in the US Navy, where to be called an “able” seaman is to be sturdily praised. At least this used to be true; I hope it still is today. Such simple and direct usage is, in the fullest sense of the term, no-nonsense; it cuts through the immense fog of verbal inflation that envelops us and shrouds the contours of things, impeding our ability to see, let alone to make accurate judgments. Our language and practices are pretty thoroughly corrupted in this regard. The writer of an academic letter of recommendation knows that to praise a student or colleague as “able” is very nearly to damn him. The recipients of such letters have internalized these same inflationary expectations. If students are not described as brilliant, and nothing is said about their ability to walk on water, that must be a way of signaling that they have so little potential as to be hardly worthy of consideration. We see a similar pattern of decline in the word civility, from the robust and resilient kind of tolerance Bejan advocates to the debilitating requirement that all disagreement and debate be rendered denatured and harmless—deprived of their passion and vigor and, above all, of anything that could give offense.

It would be a good thing for both our language and our public morality if we could dispense with this nonsense, and make more of our evaluative language resemble that crisply delimited naval acceptation of able, a word that “merely” certifies that those to whom it’s applied have the essential fitness and competence to do their job, effectively and reliably. Period. No ifs, ands, or buts, no elaboration, no psychobabble, no fluff. There is not an ounce of flab in able. But it is not the least bit dismissive or minimizing. It doesn’t overpraise, it doesn’t underpraise, it merely tells the truth, and gets to the essence of the matter. Would it not be a vast improvement if we learned to calibrate our language so that it described merely the way things are, and appreciated them for that? To restore such mere sanity to our language would provide a kick rivaling at least that of champagne.